Minister seeks answers over without-notice applications

Questions have been raised about the electronic system used by judges to issue uplift warrants. Photo: Getty

The Government is seeking answers about why without notice applications have increased. Shane Cowlishaw reports.

A sharp increase in the number of urgent Family Court applications is clearly connected to a change in the law, the Justice Minister believes.

It follows a Newsroom investigation Taken By The State, that raised questions about whether 'without notice' applications were being granted too easily.

Shocking footage of police removing children late at night shocked many officials and politicians, who said it was unacceptable such a thing was happening in New Zealand.

Applications to uplift children without notice are dealt with through the Family Court eDuty system, introduced in 2013, where duty judges review all applications regardless of where they sit, and where the application is filed.

Procedural changes were also imposed in 2014 requiring parties to go to Family Dispute Resolution before filing an application and restricting circumstances in which a party could be represented by a lawyer in court.

In the 12 months to June 30 last year, 600 without-notice warrants in relation to breaches of parenting orders were granted.

A similar number were issued in the previous 12-month period but before this the number was significantly lower – about 400 were issued across the equivalent 12-month periods since 2012.

Amy Adams, the Justice Minister, told Newsroom that she had asked officials to prepare a report on the significant increase in the number of urgent, without-notice warrants applied for and determine what was driving the increase.

“I’ve been quite concerned about the very sudden and noticeable spike in the number of without notice applications post the changes.

“We saw it going from about 70 percent on notice, 30 percent off notice, or without notice, to almost a reversal and it’s very, very starkly at the same time the reforms come in so clearly led by the reforms as opposed to any particular underlying changes in the conditions of the parties coming to court,” Adams said.

Newsroom has also uncovered concerns about flaws in the eDuty system and difficulties for judges in accessing documents online.

In one case, a judge was unable to access evidence because the file had been too large to scan into the system.

Adams said she had not been told about such difficulties but if true, she expected them to be raised with the Ministry and brought to her attention.

Andrew Little, who is now Labour’s justice spokesman, said he held concerns about the changes several years ago when he was first involved in the portfolio.

“It was totally predictable, it seems to me that the wellbeing of children has to infuse every part of the process…and that clearly isn’t happening.”

If a warrant was being applied for, especially one that was without notice, then judges needed every piece of information available to them.

Being unable to access documents was clearly a hindrance and combined with the other law changes had led to an unacceptable situation, Little said.